Keeping a Libyan Tradition Alive in Israel
Recipe Roots: Tripoli, Libya > Ashkelon, Israel > Tel Aviv
Shared by Nitza Kardish
As a child in the 1950s, living in Ashkelon, a city an hour south of Tel Aviv along Israel’s coast, Nitza Kardish would say her family was from a kibbutz. “I used to lie,” she explains. Her parents had immigrated to the young country from Libya. They were Zionists and “they didn’t have any problem with coming from Libya, because they came with their self esteem,” she says. Still, they walked a complicated line, trying to balance a pride in where they came from with a desire to integrate into a new society. “This kind of feeling was transferred to us,” Nitza says of her and her seven siblings. “My father told us: ‘If you want to be successful you have to be like them, the sabras,” the Hebrew term for a native-born Israeli.
An exception was in the kitchen and the garden in their home where Nitza’s mother Maloo celebrated Libyan recipes she learned from her sister-in-law when they lived together in Tripoli. When Nitza was very young, their family home was so small that most of the cooking took place outside in their garden where her mother moved a table for chopping vegetables and left dishes to cook over a low flame for a few hours. “It was a direct dialogue between [the] garden and the kitchen,” Nitza explains. Later, when they moved to a home with a larger kitchen, her mother started to drape foods from the ceiling to dry, peppers and garlic. “It was very colorful,” she remembers.
Fridays were reserved for Shabbat cooking. In Maloo’s kitchen that meant fish prepared in a piquant sauce called chraime, brodo or broth, a remnant of the Italian occupation of Libya, hand-rolled couscous, and mafrum, a Libyan stuffed vegetable dish. Maloo would slice potatoes, eggplant, and if it was a special occasion, cauliflower. The vegetables were then stuffed with an herbed meat blend, fried, and finished in a sauce in a crowded pan. Maloo would say: “Every mafrum finds its home.” For dessert, thin slices of kohlrabi and fennel were splashed with lemon and a sprinkling of salt as a digestif, and in the winter or at small celebrations, it was accompanied by sweet tea topped with roasted peanuts.
As Nitza and her siblings grew up and moved out of their parents’ home to build their own families, Maloo carried on with the Friday cooking inviting her sons and their children for afternoon couscous and her daughters and their families for Friday night dinner of mafrum. Some weeks there were as many as 30 people at the table, Nitza recalls. It was a tradition Maloo kept up with until she passed away in her early 80s.
Today, Nitza is the family member who carries on Maloo’s recipes including the mafrum. Her mother never formally taught her to make the dish. She used to say: “whoever has eyes and brains, observes and does what others are doing.” Nitza picked up not only the recipe but her mother’s mannerisms in the kitchen.
When her siblings miss her mother’s food they ask her to cook, saying “Yalla, Nitza do some mafrum.” When she does, her brothers say they can see their mother in the kitchen.
Total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes + 1 hour cooking time
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons neutral oil (like canola, grapeseed, or safflower)
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 medium vine ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
1 small zucchini, peeled and cut into chunks
1 red bell pepper, cut into chunks
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 cup water
2 teaspoons Ras El Hanout
*The onion and tomato are musts, for the rest of the vegetables you can use whatever you have on hand. You want to create a bed for the mafrum that fills the bottom of the pan. You can also add the scraps from the potato and eggplant as you are making and stuffing the mafrum.
For the Mafrum:
4 medium russet potatoes, peeled
1 medium eggplant, peeled
For the filling:
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
⅓ bunch cilantro, washed, leaves and tender stems only
½ bunch parsley, washed, leaves and tender stems only
1 lb. ground beef, 80% lean (use beef with at least 15% fat)
1 ½ teaspoons Ras El Hanout
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup plain breadcrumbs (not always necessary)
3-4 cups all-purpose flour, for dusting
¾ cup water
¼ cup tomato paste
1-2 quarts canola oil
1. In a large, deep pan (a 4 qt. braiser works well), heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, zucchini, bell pepper, and garlic and sauté until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the water and Ras El Hanout and stir to combine. Cover and cook over medium-low heat while you prepare the Mafrum.
2. Place 2 tablespoons of kosher salt in a large bowl. Dissolve the salt in ½ cup of hot water and then fill with cold water. Place the peeled potatoes in the salt water to soak for about 25 minutes (it will help the potatoes stay together when stuffing them later).
3. Shape the eggplant: Cut the eggplant in half crosswise. Take one half of eggplant and stand it on its larger end. Start to cut a ¼-inch slice lengthwise - but don’t cut all the way through - leave about a ½-inch connected at the bottom. Go back to the top and cut another ¼-inch slice lengthwise this time cutting through all the way at the bottom. The result should be around a 4- inch long pac-man shape. Repeat the same technique with the remaining eggplant. Each eggplant half should make about 2-3 mafrum shapes depending on the size of your eggplant. Place the shaped eggplant pieces in a large dish and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Let sit for at least 20 minutes.
4. Make the filling: Place the onion and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 4-5 times. Add the cilantro and parsley and pulse until coarsely chopped, about 10-15 more times. Take the mixture by the handful squeezing out as much liquid as you can, and place in a large bowl. Add the meat, egg, Ras El Hanout, salt, and pepper. Knead the meat and herb mixture together with your hands until evenly combined. You want to be able to make a ball with the filling and have it hold together. If it’s too wet add some bread crumbs 1 tablespoon at a time until the consistency feels right. If the mixture seems too dry, add an additional egg. Set the mixture aside to rest.
5. Prepare your work station for frying: Place the flour on a large plate (or on a plastic bag, like Nitza and her mom, gathering and throwing out the bag with the leftover flour when done). Place the water, egg and tomato paste in a shallow bowl and whisk until well incorporated. Pour the oil into a large heavy bottomed pan with high sides (a 5 qt. dutch oven works well) until it reaches 1 ½-2 inches up the side of the pan. Heat the oil over medium-high heat while you stuff the vegetables. The ideal temperature range for frying is between 350-375°F which can be measured with a candy or instant read thermometer.
6. Stuff the eggplant: Rinse the eggplant pieces and dry them on a towel. Stuff each one with ~¼ cup of the meat mixture, as if the pac-man now has a meat smile. Make sure it is packed well and is flush with edges of the eggplant. Repeat with the rest of the eggplant slices. Coat each stuffed eggplant with flour on all sides tapping off any excess and set aside.
7. Shape and stuff the potatoes: Drain, rinse, and dry the potatoes. Using the same technique as the eggplant, cut a ¼-inch slice lengthwise without cutting all the way through, leaving it attached by a ½-inch. Repeat the lengthwise ¼-inch slice, cutting through all the way to create a pac-man shape. Each potato should make ~3 mafrum shapes. Stuff with the meat mixture in the same way as the eggplant, dust with flour, and set aside until ready to fry.
8. When the oil is ready (you can check with a thermometer or by sprinkling some flour into the hot oil - if it bubbles and evaporates it’s hot enough), take one of the well floured eggplant pieces and quickly dip it in the egg batter making sure to coat evenly on all sides. Carefully slide into the oil (as low and close as you can get to the oil, so that it doesn’t splash). Working quickly, repeat with remaining eggplant pieces, being careful not to overcrowd. When the first side is browned, after about 2 minutes, flip and fry on the second side another 3-5 minutes until golden brown on both sides. Use a slotted spoon or a spider and transfer to the pan where the sauce has been simmering. Repeat with the potatoes.
9. The saucepan should be crowded. Gently shake the pan from side to side, so that - like Nitza’s mom used to say - ”every mafrum finds its home”. Once all of the mafrum are in the pan, the liquid from the sauce should cover the mafrum halfway. If this is not the case add ½ -1 cup of water to the pan. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook at a low simmer for 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Uncover and continue cooking for 30-45 minutes until the sauce thickens and most of the liquid has evaporated. A perfect mafrum is served with a very thick sauce, and may even be a bit scorched on the bottom.
10. Serve hot, either on a bed of couscous or with some bread.
Note: Cauliflower is another vegetable that Nitza’s family would stuff and fry for mafrum. It’s considered the hardest to master and regarded as the most special because it was not always readily available at the market. When Maloo was able to get it at the market, she would announce triumphantly, “today there is mafrum in califiori!” (califiori = cauliflower in Italian). If you are feeling brave, you can create the mafrum shape out of cauliflower and stuff and fry it as you did the eggplant and potatoes.
Libyan Tea with Peanuts, Fennel & Kohlrabi
Time: 20 minutes + 2 hours resting time
For the tea:
4 cups boiling water
4 tablespoons loose leaf black tea
8 tablespoons sugar
1 cup peanuts, toasted
For the fennel and kohlrabi:
1 head of fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 kohlrabi, peeled and thinly sliced
Juice from two lemons
1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt flakes
1. Place the fennel and kohlrabi in a medium bowl and toss with the lemon juice. Cover and let marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.
2. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan or tea kettle. Add the tea leaves and sugar and boil for 10-15 minutes.
3. While the tea boils, place the peanuts in a skillet over medium heat and toast until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
4. Strain the tea into small heat proof glass cups and sprinkle with a handful of peanuts.
5. When ready to serve, toss the fennel and kohlrabi and sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Enjoy with the tea!